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Cabinet reshuffle shows nobody knows what PM Modi will do next

Weak governments leak all the time. During UPA II, everybody, from the PMO to the CAG to the lowliest junior minister, leaked. It is a mark of the strength of the Modi government that nothing ever gets out — unless he wants it to.

analysis Updated: Sep 04, 2017 23:54 IST
Prime Minister Narendra Modi,Narendra Modi,Cabinet reshuffle
Prime Minister Narendra Modi exchanges greetings with President Ram Nath Kovind and new cabinet ministers after the reshuffle at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Sunday. (PTI)

There is only one clear, unequivocal message from Sunday’s reshuffle of the Union Cabinet. India has never seen a Prime Minister like Narendra Modi. One reason why all predictions about his likely actions fail is that there is no precedent for many of the things that Modi does and, therefore, no reliable way of assessing what he will do next.

For days before the reshuffle, television channels ran wall-to-wall coverage of what was likely to happen. With one possible exception (the inclusion of former Mumbai Police Commissioner Satyapal Singh), nearly every prediction was wrong. Even after the new ministers were sworn in, journalists made fools of themselves by declaring that there would be no defence minister and that Arun Jaitley would keep the portfolio. I did not see one report that predicted the elevation of Nirmala Sitharaman.

Weak governments leak all the time. During UPA II, everybody, from the PMO to the CAG to the lowliest junior minister, leaked. It is a mark of the strength of the Modi government that nothing ever gets out — unless he wants it to.

Ministerial appointments are one example. Nobody expected Smriti Irani to be made HRD Minister, nobody thought she would be shifted to textiles and nobody predicted her sudden return to prominence.

This is as true of the states. One reason why the BJP avoided naming a chief ministerial candidate before the UP elections was because Modi had Yogi Adityanath in mind all along. And hardly anyone guessed what he was up to.

So it has been with many of the prime minister’s other initiatives. Who knew that he was flying off to Pakistan to wish Nawaz Sharif on his birthday? Even as massive an enterprise as demonetisation was kept secret till the moment that Modi went on TV to announce it.

Disappointed journalists have made the point — in the aftermath of the media’s humiliation — that neither Modi nor his key aide, Amit Shah confide in the press. This is indisputable. But, to focus on the Modi-Shah duo’s allergy to the media is to miss the big picture. Many of the (completely wrong) reports about who was in and who was out emerged out of briefings from top BJP sources. Clearly these people also knew nothing.

But equally some people must have known. Many of those being elevated were consulted. Modi’s bureaucrats, who apparently prepared performance reports about his ministers, must have had some idea of what was going to happen. But they never let a word slip.

Similarly, the Foreign Office knew about the prime minister’s surprise trip to Pakistan. Various bureaucrats, RBI officials and those at the mint knew about demonetisation. But not one hint got out — even to the Cabinet.

No prime minister has been as much of a secretive loner as Modi. He is often compared to Indira Gandhi but she had a kitchen cabinet and then, a full-fledged court. If you were close to first, PN Haksar and later, RK Dhawan, you knew what was coming. Modi has no kitchen cabinet, no high-profile advisors, no courtiers and no cronies.

As for the reshuffle itself, it follows none of the patterns predicted by political analysts. We were told that the RSS would play a key role but while some RSS favourites have been included this is not an expansion that benefits gaurakshaks. We were told that non-performers like Radha Mohan Singh would go. They have survived. We were assured that poll-bound states such as Himachal and Gujarat would get greater representation. They have not.

We were informed that Arun Jaitley’s star was on the decline, that he might even lose finance. In fact, he seems stronger than ever. The two great promotions have gone to his protégés, Piyush Goyal and Nirmala Sitharaman.

So, is there an overarching pattern to the reshuffle? Well, it confirms two things. One: Modi won’t give in to pressure. So despite a chargesheet, Uma Bharati stays. Suggestions that ML Khattar would be removed from Haryana and given a face-saving Cabinet portfolio after the Ram Rahim fiasco have also proved wrong.

And we know that Modi likes bureaucrats. So there’s lots of them in the ministry, though not necessarily in areas where they have any expertise. Hardeep Puri was one of our ablest diplomats but he’s been parachuted into Urban Development. Nor is it clear why KJ Alphons should get tourism or RK Singh should be placed in energy.

But there is nearly always an internal logic to Modi’s moves. The trouble is: we can’t predict these moves and the logic is something that only he understands.

Till we figure out how his mind works, he will keep India guessing.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Sep 04, 2017 12:58 IST